if I was / if I were [rich; rude, etc.]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Daywalker, Sep 13, 2005.

  1. Daywalker New Member

    I would like to know if there is a different between if i was and if i were or if they mean exactly the same thing, ex:
    If i was rich [...]
    If i were rich [...]
  2. duder Senior Member

    They mean exactly the same thing, although "If I was" + [hypothetical situation] is considered by many to be gramatically incorrect and is not acceptable in more formal (particularly written) contexts.

    I personally always say and write "If I were", and would only use "If I was" in phrases like this that capture a different meaning:

    If I was rude on the phone with you yesterday, I apologize.

    But it really depends on the person, and "If I was" is very common in spoken English. There have a few discussions on this already.
  3. MrMagoo

    MrMagoo Senior Member

    Westphalia, Germany
    Westphalia, Germany; German
    They mean the same.

    "were" is the conjunctive form of the verb "be".
    English has almost lost the conjunctive mood and the forms of the conjunctive fell together with the past tense forms indicative, only "be" still keeps its forms in "I were" and "he were".

    "If I were rich..." is a bit more proper, but "If I was..." is not wrong either. ;)
  4. mystique Member

    Sa Mundo ng Mga Dyosa
    Read more about the MOODS OR MODES of the sentences....
  5. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    Please provide some context...

    In the subjunctive sense, "were" is the correct form, "was" the incorrect but common form.

    As Duder states, however, there is another scenario - in which "was" is the only correct form.
  6. modgirl Senior Member

    USA English, French, Russian
    Although many English-speaking people use them interchangeably, they do not mean the same thing.

    If I were your teacher, I'd flunk you. (I am not your teacher)

    If I were going to Antarctica, I'd go with my best friend. (I am not going to Antarctica)

    If I was fast in the race, it's because I had competition to push me. (I may have been fast; I may not have. The condition is unclear)

    If I was rude, I apologize. (I may have been rude. It depends on a person's point-of-view. The condition is unclear)

    (Someone else used the above example, but it's a good one)
  7. Mariaguadalupe

    Mariaguadalupe Senior Member

    Mexico, Spanish-English
    As Modgirl says, "I I were" is used as a conditional.

    If I were your teacher, I'd flunk you. (I am not your teacher)

    If I were going to Antarctica, I'd go with my best friend. (I am not going to Antarctica)

    It is the correct way to say it, although as Duder states, when speaking some people prefer to say "I was".
  8. El Estudiante

    El Estudiante Senior Member

    EEUU, english
    Modgirl's explanation is correct. They are not the same. Were is in the subjunctive "mood". It is one of the few words in English which still retain a distinct subjunctive form.
  9. Daywalker New Member

    ok thanks :)
  10. kapas Member

    Belo Horizonte
    Brazil Portuguese
    I want to add a new question: what about Beyonce song "If I were a boy".
    Why did she use "were"? It is he, isn't it?
  11. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    The last time I looked, Beyonce was a 28 year-old woman.

    She is definitely not a boy.

    So when she says "If I were a boy" - she is talking about an unreal, or imaginary situation.
  12. srta chicken

    srta chicken Senior Member

    US English
    A lot of US speakers use "was" incorrectly--ex: If it was up to me ...

    But when you don't, you sound more educated, and that would matter in a formal setting such as a business meeting or a term paper.
  13. chamyto

    chamyto Senior Member

    Burgos, Spain
    For me, both could be acceptable, but in terms of hypotethical situations "were" is the best option.

    E.g. If I were rich, I´d buy a Palace.
  14. la_machy

    la_machy Senior Member

    Hermosillo, Sonora, México.
    Español de Sonora
    Both are acceptable, chamyto, in the right context.

    ''If I was rude on the phone, I'm sorry'':tick:

    But, in despite I am not an english native speaker, I hurt my ears when someone says 'If I was rich, I would buy a new car'.:cross:

  15. Saurabh

    Saurabh Senior Member

    New Delhi City
    English-British, Hindi
    Yes, even though both are used interchangeably, I guess there is a point where one differs other.
    Whenever, impossible situations(hypothetical ones) needed to be expressed, were would be used. If we rather wanted to express a past situation which could have been possible otherwise, was might replace were there.

    1.) I could marry her if I were Tom cruise. (It seems quite impossible for me to be Tom Cruise)
    2.) What would her reply be if he were to propose her. (He is in no mood to propose her or is incapable of doing the same)
    3.) She might stay there if Moon were found suitable to live for.(We all know, as of now we, can not inhabitate Moon)

    1). I would say hi to her if I was amongst them. (I wasn't there however could have been there)
    2.) Later, she would feel sorry if he was treated bad by her.(He could have rather well been treated by her though).
    3.) I beg my apologise if I was drunk.(I really was)

    Hope it helps!
  16. Aodhán New Member

    Great explanation of the difference. I, too, have only ever really heard people saying "If I was...". I signed up to this forum though to ask people here two questions:

    1) If you use 'If I were' in the subjunctive case what is the name of the case, such as you mentioned, where it is correct to still use 'If I was'?

    2) Is 'I wish I were' always more correct than 'I wish I was'? Is there *any* situation where 'I wish I was' would be accurate? For instance, would 'I wish I had been faster' be more correct than saying 'I wish I was faster'?

  17. ErikaDee New Member

    Someone sent me a statement today saying "I wonder how life would be if I were shallow" it sounded a bit off to me. Should it have been "was" instead of were? Or was he correct?
  18. Saurabh

    Saurabh Senior Member

    New Delhi City
    English-British, Hindi
    Welcome to the Forum, ErikaDee :)

    I'd say the same that someone did

    It means, he was totally sure he couldn't be shallow and hence was expressing a hypothetical situation, not the real one.

    Why do you think it should have been "Was" and not "Were" ?
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2011
  19. Aumont Member

    1) "If I was" (simple past) is often used where "if I were" (past subjunctive) would be grammatically correct. In type 2 if-clauses you use the past subjunctive, which just happens to have the same form as the simple past for most verbs.
    I was once told "was" is used for unreal situations that could be possible ("If I was rich" - might happen some day, but at the moment I'm not vs."if I were the King of England/if I were a girl" - I'm not and I'll never be; it's impossible), not sure if that's 100% correct though.

    2) There is a huge difference:
    "I wish I was (actually: were) faster" - I'm not fast, but I'd like to be.
    "I wish I had been faster" - I was not fast (in a race for example): the race is over and I regret that I was so slow.



    Some input on the use of "was" vs. "were" depending on the level of possibility would be much appreciated.
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2011
  20. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    It's 100% wrong.

    Just about everything is theoretically possible.

    You could win the lottery and become rich - theoretically possible.
    You could have a sex change, and become a girl - theoretically possible.
    The United Kingdom could split up, and the new English government could invite you to become King of England- theoretically possible, but rather unlikely.
    Incidentally, the last person to have the title "King of England" was William III, who died in 1702.

    So use "were" for currently unreal or imagined situations, without playing probability games.

    Stick with "If I were rich, [but I am not], I would buy a castle in Spain." "If I were the King of England [which I am not], I would bring back the stocks and the pillory." "If I were a girl, [which I am not], I would always wear green stockings."
  21. LV4-26

    LV4-26 Senior Member

    Or said differently, I think many English speakers who wouldn't use a subjunctive anywhere else, keep using it in this specific case.
  22. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England

    I agree with Modgirl about this. In her examples:

    If I was fast in the race, it's because I had competition to push me. (I may have been fast; I may not have. The condition is unclear)
    If I was rude, I apologize. (I may have been rude. It depends on a person's point-of-view. The condition is unclear)

    We get something very strange if we turn
    was to were -

    If I were fast in the race, it's because I had competition to push me.
    If I were rude, I apologize.

    So where the condition may well have been met, I'm tempted to say the subjunctive should not be used.

    P.S. It certainly should not be used, I'd say, in a case like this:
    In my youth I was fond of betting: sometimes I won and was rich, at others I lost and had not a penny to my name. If I was rich, I was generous and bought drinks for my friends; if I was poor, I couldn't even buy supper for myself.
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2011
  23. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English

    If you are talking about conditions which have been met, or which may well have been met, then obviously you are not talking about unreal or imaginary situations.

    I was generous .... definitely not imagined, so definitely no If I were

    Look at the whole situation.
    Is the main clause describing an actual situation? If 'yes', then the subordinate if-clause cannot be subjunctive.
  24. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I find that some BE speakers, and I count myself among them, occasionally distinguish between situations which couldn't be the case - if I were you - and those which, while not the case, could very well be - if I was in Paris (spoken by someone who often goes to Paris).

    I worry that people who talk about counterfactuals fail to distinguish between the two.

    Many educated BE speakers would avoid saying if I was you:cross:, but would happily say if I was in Paris. I've known AE speakers on the forum react to the second as I would to the first, which suggests that AE doesn't make the distinction.

    The distinction can be useful, however. I think the last time we discussed this I mentioned that it can be used to exert superiority: a boss who says if I were to sack you will sound much less threatening than one who says if I was to sack you.
  25. Aumont Member

    Hey, no need to get personal about this. ;-)

    But seriously, of course you could argue that almost anything could be technically possible, like the sex change you mentioned. But since Thomas would use it the same way ("If I was in Paris" vs. "If I were you" - perfectly possible, mind you - at least in your average American movie...), I think it might be a British phenomenon, after all it was from British native speakers that I heard about this in the first place.

    However, I would understand modgirl's sentences a little differently:
    If I was fast in the race, it's because I had competition to push me. (I was fast, but only because I had competition)
    If I was rude, I apologize. (I was rude (probably unintentionally) and want to apologise)

    In Thomas's sentence (or is it "Thomas' sentence"? - but that's a different matter...)
    "If I was rich, I was generous and bought drinks for my friends; if I was poor, I couldn't even buy supper for myself.", to me the question about was/were does not even arise; I think it should be "when" instead of "if", because it means "every time I was rich/poor".
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2011
  26. LV4-26

    LV4-26 Senior Member

    If we wanted to split hair, we could say it's not exactly the same was, even in those two sentences.
    If I was fast = I was, that's a fact.
    If I was rude = I suspect I may have been rude. If that's the case, I apoligize.

    Still, none of them is counterfactual.

    EDIT: Just wondering if I'm merely repeating what Aumont said. I don't think so: we seem disagree on the if I was rude..
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2011
  27. Aumont Member

    No, we don't disagree. I think you're right. ;-)

    Your definition is closer to the feeling of the sentence. The person did something, that's a fact. And (s)he's unsure whether it was offensive, so in case it was, (s)he aplogises. Spot-on!
  28. Pertinax

    Pertinax Senior Member

    Queensland, Aust
    Although it would be an error to use "were" in:
    If I was rude, I apologize.

    .. I wouldn't consider it grammatically wrong to say either:
    If I was in Paris (as I often am) ...
    If I was you ...

    See Geoffrey Pullum's Language Log (2008-8-12): http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=476

    If the subjunctive is used, then, as Brioche points out, it should be used only for an unreal or imaginary situation set in the present or the future. Yet the speculative mood is I think evident from either the semantics or from the presence of "would" in the main clause, and there is no logical reason to embody the mood in the English verb-form, except perhaps to obviate a mild "garden path" effect.

    In my own speech, I use the subjunctive routinely in:
    If I were you ...
    If the moon were made of green cheese ...

    .. but for a supposition which is less obviously counterfactual, I am quite likely to make the distinction articulated by TT. For example, my wife is on holiday overseas at the moment, yet I might well tell my son:
    If Mum was here you wouldn't let your room get that untidy.
  29. jqbox New Member

    English - American
    Contrary to what has been said by some of the other respondents, there is, in fact, a difference between the two. The most obvious difference is that the first clause is inappropriate if you are indeed attempting to express a hypothetical/contrary to fact conditional relationship between the above clause and the eventual independent clause that would make a complete sentence. In such a case, the second clause is correct. One uses the subjunctive mood to express, among other things, hypothetical situations.

    The first sentence, which is in the indicative mood, would only be appropriate if the conditional were not hypothetical but actually very likely. The mood in either sentence suggests something of the author's attitude towards the ideas expressed in the dependent clause beginning with "if."

    As you can see, the meaning of the two clauses is quite different. One clause expresses that the speaker is not rich, while the other clause expresses a high degree of certainty that he or she is rich; in fact, the first sentence of the second paragraph of my reply employs the subjunctive mood, revealing, among other things, my own feelings on the likelihood of one ever intentionally and correctly saying "if I was rich." :)

    For an interesting and--if I say so myself--funny article on the subjunctive mood, Google "Clean up your (grammatical) act" and follow the first entry in the results.
  30. JulesMC New Member

    Recently, the language arts teacher (I teach reading) at our school asked me why I was using "were" instead of "was. I was saying, in a critique of some congressional decisions, "If I were running the country..." We argued about who was right/wrong and I continued to stand my ground but couldn't back it up with a grammatical rule. All I knew was it was the way I'd been raised to say it. I'm going to refer her to this post, although she'll probably still insist "were" is incorrect.

    Also, jqbox, I went to the link you sent and found it entertaining. If my students weren't under 18, I could use it to show the difference between literal and figurative language.
  31. jqbox New Member

    English - American
    You were definitely in the right, and I agree--the language arts teacher is so committed to her position that she is unlikely to back down in the face of any evidence.

    Thank you for your reply. I am glad that you found my post and my article informative. Keep fighting the good fight! :)
  32. sergeyrais Member

    Wouldn't it be better to use should in the if-clause and the Future Simple in the main sentence for unreal situations that could be possible?

    e.g. If I should be rich I'll buy a castle.
  33. sergeyrais Member

    I guess the unreality expressed in the concrete sentences depends not on the abstract theoretical possibility but is opinionated.
  34. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    Since this thread has come back to life I want to express my two cents on the was-were difference. I don't see the choice as dependent on the degree of impossibility. I see no difference between "if I were to sack you..." and "if I were a dinosaur...". The first is hypothetically possible, the second is not, but neither is true at this moment and that's what counts. "If I was...", in strictly formal terms, refers to a real past, not an unreal present. If sacking were a real possibility, I'd change tense: "If I sack you, what will you do?"

    If people don't always say "If I were...", in my opinion it is for two reasons:
    1) some limit its use to writing or formal speaking;
    2) some limit it further, to set phrases such as "If I were you".

    I'm not criticising these choices, I'm only saying that in my experience they don't depend on the degree of possibility but only on the degree of formality.
  35. tetulio5

    tetulio5 Senior Member


    Then, I can say: " If I bought that book it was because I liked" . <<>>
    " If I had bought that book I would read it". <<>>

    " If I were a footballer I would be famous". <<>> Unreal situation
    " If I was a bad person in the past, I apologize" <<>> Real situation.

    " If I had a plane I'd travel around the world" " <<>> Unreal situation.
    " If I had bad-manners last night, I apologize" <<>> Real situation.

    Is this correct?
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 26, 2015
  36. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Hello Einstein,

    I take it that you are mostly concerned with this form as the if-clause in a 2nd conditional sentence.

    I'd just like to say that your experience isn't entirely consistent with that of many others.

    As usual, I've no idea, in the sort of context, what 'in strictly formal terms' might mean. Here are some examples, of many to be found, from literature, of 'if I was' where we are certainly not dealing with what you call a 'real past'.

    If I was rich, I would make it worth the while of the first poor fellow I could find to rid me of Helena by marrying her
    . Wilkie Collins, Legacy of Cain, Chapter 56.

    If I was a minister, I'd pick the short, snappy ones. Lucy Maude Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables.

    "Everything is lovely," replied the alderman, "and I wouldn't leave it if I was not obliged to.
    L.Frank Baum, Mother Goose in Prose.

    In choosing I have had to be careful to avoid deliberate uneducated speech. Dickens, for example, clearly regards misuse of the indicative here as showing poor education, eg. I wouldn't give another sixpence, if I was to be boiled for not doing it. (A Christmas Carol). He does it in many other instances. The examples above are from reasonably educated people, talking in the story.

    Many - I'm tempted to say most - writers use both indicative and subjunctive forms, for second conditionals. Here is Wells doing so:

    Yet, if I were left alone, I do not think my personal taste would affect my decision; H.G.Wells, The Trouble of Life. - there's no possibility he will be left alone.
    But if I was Elvesham, I should remember where I was on the previous morning,... H.G.Wells, The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham - this is a wonderful example, because Wells uses the indicative to tell us that the speaker has very possibly been turned into another person (Mr Elvesham).

    Here is a great writer using the alternatives in what I regard as the classical way:

    No, you wouldn't find me grousing if I were a male newt. P.G.Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves - it's not possible for him to be a male newt.
    If I was naughty, you could take me up and shake me till I was good, couldn't you? P.G.Wodehouse, The Intrusion of Jimmy, Chapter 16. - it is possible for her to be naughty.
  37. le Grand Soir Senior Member

    le 20ème, Paris
    Anglais, dialecte de San Francisco
    Good Evening everyone,

    This "were/was" choice all seemed pretty clear, I was "getting it" until now. What is meant by this business about "conjunctive mood", I have never heard of it before.

    le Grand Soir
  38. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Hello Le Grand Soir.

    I always thought it was another word for what many of us call the subjunctive, used after a conjunction.
  39. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    "Conjunctive" is a common mistranslation from the Latin languages. The correct word is "subjunctive".

    I continue to maintain, as in other threads, that the main characteristic of the subjunctive is the use of a past form to describe a present unreal situation. Any verb used in this manner expresses a subjunctive meaning. Of course, only the verb "be" has different forms for the indicative and subjunctive, but if a person says "If I was rich, I'd travel round the world", then the meaning is subjunctive, despite his choice not to say "were". If it were indicative it would mean that he really was rich at some time in the past; that is surely the meaning of "indicative".

    Apologies for not replying to Thomas Tompion (#36) because I'm very busy at the moment and even this short intervention represents a transgression.:)
  40. tunaafi Senior Member

    English - British (Southern England)
    'Subjunctive' is the name of a mood of a verb. In English, it expresses "suggestions, wishes, uncertainty, possibility, etc" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subjunctive). I don't think we can say that the verb expresses a 'subjunctive meaning'.
  41. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    I may not have used the correct terminology, but you've said very well what the subjunctive meaning (for want of another term) is: "suggestions, wishes, uncertainty, possibility, etc."
    My point is that we cannot deduce the mood of the verb only from its form, especially in English, which has very few inflexions. We have to examine the verb's function in the sentence.
  42. tunaafi Senior Member

    English - British (Southern England)
    Well, we can with the first and third person singular forms of BE. The indicative form is was and the subjunctive form is were.
  43. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    We seem to be arguing in circles; I said "not only from its form". In the sentence "If I had more money, I'd be happy", is "had" subjunctive or indicative? Is it the same mood as "I had more money last year"? I believe its function is different. In the first case it's subjunctive and in the second case indicative.

    If I say "deer", is it singular or plural? You'll answer that we need to see the rest of the sentence. You won't say there's no conceptual difference between singular and plural just because we can't see the difference in the form of the word.

    In "If I was rich", the use of "was" simply expresses the decline of the distinct form for the subjunctive and in the end we'll be using only one form for both indicative and subjunctive, in line with all the other verbs. It does not mean the decline of the subjunctive mood.

    Some might say that the term subjunctive is out of date and serves no purpose. I accept that, if we also abolish the term indicative and speak simply of the past tense.
  44. tunaafi Senior Member

    English - British (Southern England)
    I am one of those., at least as far as BrE is concerned. BE is the only verb in the English language that has a recognisable past-tense form for the subjunctive, and it is not used by the majority of native speakers, In the present, the only recognisable form is the third person singular and, apart from a few fossilised expressions such as Long live the Queen, it is used only by a tiny minority of native speakers. I see no value in pretending that it is a feature of modern British English.

    I, personally, think that 'past' is a misnomer for the inflected tense in English, but that is going rather too far off topic.
  45. Lady Black New Member

    Spanish & Catalan
    Hi there!

    Then, could you please tell me what happens in songs such as "If I was your mother" by Bon Jovi and so on?

    Is it just to make it sound better when singing? I can't imagine Bon Jovi turning into a mother :)
  46. JordyBro Senior Member

    English - Australia
    "If I was your mother" is a hypothetical, judging from that line. (I haven't listened to the song yet). I would personally say "if I were your mother" though. Are you asking about using "was" instead of "were"?
  47. Lady Black New Member

    Spanish & Catalan
    Yes. The thing is that I was considering it might be because of the sound. I don't know, to make it sound a bit more... musical? Because it doesn't make sense grammatically.

    Apparently, it's not the only case. Prince also produced a song called "If I was your girlfriend".
  48. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    In a song from the 1960s I remember "If I were a carpenter...". I don't think anyone protested about stilted, pedantic language.:)
  49. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Hello Einstein.

    For what it's worth, I was sorry you never answered my implied question.
  50. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    Apologies indeed, I'm still in the thick of my work. However, in your examples you quote only two authors who use both forms, allowing comparison:
    I have to take your word for it; I haven't read the book.
    Perhaps you've shot yourself in the foot here. Here's a fuller quote: "Was all life hallucination? Was I indeed Elvesham, and he me? Had I been dreaming of Eden overnight? Was there any Eden? But if I was Elvesham, I should remember where I was on the previous morning..." The narration is in the past. His thoughts, in direct speech, would be "If I am Elvesham, I ought to remember etc." The narration is reporting a first conditional, so the transformation of "am" to "was" is logical.
    It's like, "If you're home by 7.30 you'll be in time for dinner", which in reported speech would be "She told me that if I was home by 7.30 I would be in time for dinner". This is not a
    hypothetical present but a real past.

    You still have Wodehouse as an ally, so I can accept that you're not alone.

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